Decline of the Scottish Conservative Party

The Herald Jan 18-20, 1989, ran as a three-part series.

PUBLIC squalor and private affluence, Professor Galbraith's famous phrase, implies a polity where individual wealth and consumption are encouraged and public spending restrained.

In a recent broadcast on Radio 4, the professor recognised that this polity was very much alive in Britain after almost 10 years of Thatcherism, and he found this recognition in the humdrum shape of bags of uncollected rubbish in London.

Residents of Glasgow’s West End, where roaming dogs and feral cats root in dustbins and in the impromptu middens that suddenly appear at handy corners, will recognise the symptoms. So will those unfortunate enough to live near a fast-food shop, a taxi rank or a bus-stop. The morning harvest of fried chicken boxes, chip papers and drink cans has no resale value. This is, alas, no harvest; these are the droppings of the consumer society (the Latin root consumere means to destroy). The pessimistic conclusion must be that human carelessness will defeat the most enlightened Government.

A visitor transported to Scotland from 30 years ago would hardly recognise the place. The churches are fewer and emptier, and in every high street or thoroughfare there is a profusion of video shops, bars, off-licences, travel agents.

The visitor would not know that some of these businesses are subsidised by unemployed people working for very low rates ”off the books.” He would not know that the prisons are bulging and squalid; or that there is a plague of housebreaking, shoplifting and petty thieving which has reduced the authorities to impotence; or that the life-style of the people too often undermines their health; or that vandalism adds millions to the cost of maintaining schools.

He would not know that there had been a convulsive loss of employment in manufacturing. He would not know that Scotland showed a relatively poor performance in the formation of new business. But he would undoubtedly notice the enhanced prosperity of the people, though as each jet takes off for the Mediterranean and each new yet more splendid shopping mall opens he could be excused for wondering where all the money was coming from. Sometimes, in darker moments, he might conclude that it was all being borne on a bubble of consumer credit that could easily burst.

Now it is true that the face of Scottish cities has begun very much to be improved. The transformation of Glasgow has rightly been celebrated though, as we keep reminding ourselves, there is still much to do.

Curiously enough, this improvement has come, and is coming, from acts of Government policy which a Thatcherite might regard as apostasy — a vigorous programme of public investment spearheaded by the Scottish Development Agency in partnership with local authorities and the private sector.

Indeed the Government has failed in its monetarist objective of cutting public expenditure. It can claim only to have reduced it as a proportion of the national economy. Within the total there have been changes of emphasis.

Spending has increased in real terms in the fields of employment and training; law and order; social security; health and personal social services; defence; agriculture, fisheries and food; and education and science.

It has decreased on industry, trade and energy; housing; transport; other environmental services, and overseas aid. And many in the public sector have felt a cold wind blowing.

Senior civil servants have seen their pay and remuneration fall badly behind the private sector. Low-paid workers, notably in the health service, have been made redundant and re-employed at lower rates with fewer fringe benefits and less security. Universities are living in a financial nightmare. The pay and standing of their staffs have been eroded. Professors find it is no longer enough to be scholars; they must be salesmen and fund-raisers too. The public housing stock is in transition and rents are climbing fast; damp in Scottish public housing is a national scandal. Public utilities are either fattened for privatisation or starved of resources.

One of the curiosities of the privatisation process is that professionals in the industries involved, for example electricity and water (in England), come to welcome the idea because they have despaired of either appropriate salaries or capital investment while they remain in the public domain. Mr Paul Mugnaioni’s departure from Glasgow’s housing department to the private sector, in the form of Quality Street, is just one example.

Conversely our great teaching hospitals are seriously concerned that proposed changes in the NHS will push up the going rate for top medical men and surgeons to a level that will undermine the universities’ ability to attract them to their chairs.

The most obvious victim of the squeeze has been local government. Recently the Scottish Office claimed that central government support had kept pace with both prices and inflation, blaming local government profligacy for levels of poll tax higher than predicted. These somewhat suspect statistics dated from 1985. It is a fact that since 1975/76 central support has fallen from 75% of council spending to 55.4% in 1989/90 (in England it is 43.3%).

The squeeze on local authorities has had political as well as economic objectives. They are seen as centres of political opposition and sources of hostile propaganda, and the Government has trying to neutralise them while at the same time turning its own official information services into a propaganda machine. Mr Michael Forsyth is a particularly obvious exponent of this strategy while Mr Bernard Ingham, the Downing Street press secretary, is a monument to it. On Friday Mr Malcolm Rifkind declared a truce now that rate-capping is passing with the rates themselves and their replacement by poll tax.

Behind the difficulties also lies

the Government’s determination to reduce the relative size of the public sector and move taxation away from incomes. Like many Governments in the developed world, it has been shifting the burden of tax on to economic activity, in the form of sales or corporate profits, or in the shape of charges at the point of use.

There are significant political advantages, of course. Income tax is highly perceptible; VAT is not and therefore is less unpopular. Charges at the point of use, whether for prescriptions or utilities such as power, discriminate against the poor but have the virtue of restraining demand that would otherwise be infinitely elastic. The patient will not be so keen on his placebo if he has to pay for it (nor, the argument goes, will he be so keen to vote for an extravagant local council if the poll tax shoots up).

The Government’s policy has been successful in that tax revenues are buoyant (the idea that we are paying less tax is an illusion, but we do have more disposable income) and there is a budget surplus.

One might have thought that the Government would have used this surplus to ease the squeeze on essential services, like roads, sewerage and garbage collection, or to release the universities from bondage, or to make a major investment in the railways.

Instead it prefers to pay off the national debt. This restrains inflationary pressure and builds international confidence. It sounds virtuous and prudent. But is it? It is a harsh fact that this Government has encountered an unprecedented sequence of disasters.

Of course it is unfair to blame the Government for Zeebrugge, King’s Cross, Piper Alpha, Lockerbie, the M6 air crash, Purley and Bellgrove. Human or mechanical error will occur in the best of conditions.

Yet it is also true that two factors are common to most of these incidents (Lockerbie is a fairly obvious exception since it was the result of terrorism). Constraints on procedure or expenditure contributed to the accidents either because of the need to maximise profits or because of a shortage of public investment in staff or equipment.

The more that is passed from the public to the private sector, the more is required a tough regulatory framework. The Government may hound the fine-defaulter into our crowded jails but seems to show less interest in enforcing health and safety legislation. The inspectorates are under-resourced.

These are practical problems. Political will and resources could moderate them. More serious, and more corroding, is the moral flaw at the heart of policies which encourage private affluence at the expense of public services, and which leave charities to fill the gaps left by public parsimony.

It is this: these policies must discriminate against the weaker, the poorer, the less able, and against those who cannot supplement at their own expense what the state provides. Such policies run the risk of producing social alienation among those standing in the cold outside Mrs Thatcher’s emporium with their noses pressed against the glass (a point also made by our bulging jails). They produce that oddest of sights — a Chancellor with nothing to spend our money on.

Professor Galbraith said: ”Few things are as immutable as the addiction of political groups to the ideas by which they once won office.” It has always been a tenet of Thatcherism that prosperity is the prerequisite of effective social policy. Thatcherites are fond of quoting Abraham Lincoln’s dictum that you don’t help the weak by enfeebling the strong. The Government has certainly helped the strong grow stronger but the rest of the message seems to have got lost somewhere along the way to the bank. Charity helps, but it is not enough.




Affront as vet school is forced to fight for survival


THIS week we have been running articles in the Glasgow Herald investigating the reasons for the decline of the Conservative Party in Scotland. Yesterday afternoon in London we had a perfect example of the process at work when the University Grants Committee recommended, in effect, that Glasgow Veterinary School should be closed and merged with the Edinburgh faculty.

It is not too much to say that this suggestion is an outrage and an affront to Scotland. Both our famous schools are part of our national intellectual and scientific heritage; to attack such institutions is the kind of decision-making that explains the continuing alienation of Scots from this Government.

Sir William Kerr Fraser, the university’s new principal, is going to fight the closure, which he rightly calls unacceptable. It is the first major test of his term of office and he deserves the support of national and local politicians.

The school has seen this coming for some years, indeed since 1986 when the Riley Committee was set up by the UGC to review veterinary education in Britain. Professor James Armour, dean of the school in Glasgow, spoke to me of his fears last March.

Yesterday, after staying with friends in the Home Counties, he travelled up to London to have formal notification of the UGC decision, of which he had been forewarned. He is a rational and courteous man, but he was quietly incensed.

There are two reasons for fighting for the school. The first is its present usefulness. The second is that it arises from an intellectual and scientific tradition that requires defending. The UGC, which recommends the retention of schools in London, Liverpool, Bristol and Edinburgh, has clearly applied the principles of proportionality on a UK basis. That is to ignore the fact that Scottish pre-eminence in this field is no accident.

Taking the current usefulness of the school first, Professor Armour points to two considerable ironies in its proposed closure. First, its format of a lecture-free final year, with clinical work only, which it has pioneered, is recommended by the committee as a model for the colleges that are to survive.

Secondly, it has taken the Government’s advice, got on its bike and been successfully entrepreneurial. A high proportion of its funding is ”soft money”, i.e. money raised from the private sector for research and so on, and 55% of its buildings have been privately funded. Professor Armour said: ”We’ve done what this Government said we should — and we’ve been hammered for it.”

Professor Armour summarises the school’s current value by pointing to its highly-regarded research programme which has wide applications in human medicine and animal husbandry. Professor Bill Jarrett, the senior professor, is best known to the public for his search for an Aids vaccine, but is highly regarded in the profession for other outstanding work in pathology and virology.

The school has the biggest research group in the UK, if not in Europe, in parasitology. It has produced the only vaccine for controlling lungworm, a major parasitic disease in cattle, and it has developed control strategies for other parasitic ailments. Its work on respiratory diseases in cattle, a big problem for the farming industry, is much in demand.

There are important links with Glasgow medical school in research in neurology and oncology. Professor David Onions has just embarked on a research programme into leukaemia in animals which may have important benefits for research into the condition in human beings.

The college throughput of 60 students a year plus five from overseas was two years ago cut to 54 plus five, but the school has a total staff of at least 200, including technicians, secretaries, cleaners and so on. Its academic staff numbers 60, of which five are full professors.

It is nonsense for the Government to boast of the value to Glasgow of senior posts transferred there, for example in the creation of the BP HQ, if at the same time it presides over the demise of so useful and successful an institution, which, apart from its research programme, has sick animals referred to it from veterinary practices all over Scotland and the north of England.

The rise of veterinary science north of the Border, beyond the level to which simple calculations of population might lead one to expect, flowed from Scotland’s historical pre-eminence in human and veterinary medicine. W. J. Harvey, in his notes to the Penguin Classics edition of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, points out that one of the character’s medical education in Scotland was, despite the country’s poverty, the best available at the time. ”Scottish medical schools were much better than the English, while Paris was the great centre of postgraduate medical studies.” London is something of an exception to this general proposition which reflected Oxbridge’s tardiness in confronting science.

It was in France that formal veterinary education had its beginnings. The first school was organised at Lyon in 1762 and the second in Paris in 1765. In the next half century, schools were set up in Berlin, Copenhagen and London (in 1792). Edinburgh began in 1823. James McCall founded Glasgow in 1862, exactly a hundred years after the Lyon foundation. Dublin did not follow until 1900, Liverpool in 1904, and Bristol and Cambridge in 1949.

The Glasgow school was mostly run as an independent college until after the war and became part of Glasgow University in 1949. It was built up by, and owes its present eminence to, its first head, Sir William L. Weipers, who now lives in retirement at Duntocher. Professor Armour said that Sir William, apart from being an outstanding practitioner, was the first to see the benefits of working closely with the medical school.

The school has faced crises before. James McCall owned it for 46 years from its foundation and ran it as a private enterprise in conjunction with his practice and public appointments. In 1909 it received the official recognition of the Scottish Education Department and acquired a representative board of governors.

From 1909 to 1925, according to the official history, the Government made a small annual grant towards the expense of running it. The history adds: ”It might be thought that its public recognition would have ensured its firm establishment but soon a number of crises arose which jeopardised its continued existence.”

Not a bit of it. In 1925 state support was withdrawn, but ”despite the almost insurmountable difficulties” the governors decided to keep the college open. The following period was the most arduous in the college’s history but it was kept alive by Dr A. W. Whitehouse, principal from 1922 till his death in 1944, in conditions of extreme financial stringency.

The wheel has come round again and the college must once more fight for its life. The successors of McCall, Whitehouse and Weipers have a debt to them to be discharged, and in their fight for survival they deserve the support of the community. No doubt areas of co-operation with Edinburgh could be developed and costs saved; that should not be ruled out.

But the remote bureaucratic decision to axe this famous and distinguished school will, if implemented, anger many Scots. That anger, no doubt, will continue to find political expression. In the meantime I promise to run no more articles investigating the causes of the Conservatives’ decline in Scotland. They have become blindingly obvious.




Identity crisis leaves party with an unacceptable face


In Day 2 of our series on the Scottish Conservative Party,

ARNOLD KEMP traces the strategic errors behind the decline of

the Tories in Scotland and DEREK DOUGLAS listens to the

dissident voices within the party.

STRATEGIC errors and unfavourable historical forces lie behind the Conservatives’ long decline in Scotland. The party’s response suggests that it identifies its problems with Labour’s domination of the system of local government which a Tory administration introduced in 1974.

Indeed, local government is seen as a nodal point of dissent, through Cosla and some major authorities. It is detested as a printer, publisher and disseminator of hostile propaganda. Along with the press and the SDA, and even the Scottish Office itself, according to some more extreme Tory analyses, it is one of the agencies which denies the Government due credit, a kind of barrier separating the Tories from the electorate. It has, after all, been provider for most Scots of their houses and their education; without it, their trains and buses might not have run; and Scots have endorsed it, by and large, in successive local elections.

The Government has decided not to slay the dragon but to extinguish its fire. Mr Rifkind inveighs against ”dull municipal socialism” and, as Derek Douglas reports, Mr Michael Ancram’s inquiry into local government is expected to recommend a return to one-tier authorities, with the cities’ primacy restored. This proposal will probably be included in the next manifesto.

Meanwhile, in almost every aspect of current policy, the attempt is being made to chip away at local authority powers. In key areas like housing, education and transport, the process of institutional change or privatisation is removing functions from councils.

The community charge, though a response to a crisis in the Tories’ own constituency, is an attempt to make councils more electorally accountable and visit the consequences of their actions on those who have escaped the main burden of local taxation through the rates.

Quangos are being progressively stripped of Labour or STUC influence and the much-leaked review of the NHS is expected to diminish councillors’ role in health boards. Housing, that seminal Scottish political issue, is being shifted towards a new quango, Scottish Homes, and housing associations.

This is part of a general trend in the UK which is often seen as a result of Mrs Thatcher’s centralising instincts, and no doubt there is truth in that. However, financial constraints on councils began in the late sixties when Labour put the screws on local government expenditure, declaring, in the late Anthony Crosland’s phrase, that the party was over.

But in Scotland the trend has a particular relevance. This is partly because Mr Rifkind’s policies go beyond mere financial restraint and amount to a systematic attack on the primacy of local authorities as providers of services, and partly because the Conservatives’ decline in Scotland is historically connected to their failures of judgment in council politics.

These Conservative errors can be traced back to the thirties. By then Labour was fighting local elections regularly and systematically in the four cities and most of the counties and large burghs.

This point was noted in an article in the Scottish Political Yearbook of 1978 by the Glasgow Conservative lawyer Leonard Turpie, whose decision to quit local politics is still regretted by his old sparring partners in Strathclyde, where he led the opposition.

When the Conservatives (and the Liberals) did organise the fight in the cities and the burghs, they did so as Moderates or Progressives or under some other neutral title.

What in fact was formed was an anti-Labour coalition or alliance. This was a very significant force in the cities. The Progressive Association in Glasgow, for example, was formed in 1936 and at the height of its power in 1951 had 58 councillors on the old city corporation.

The Progressives did not die easily. Through the sixties and the early seventies they fought the Conservatives’ decision to pin the party ticket on councillors. There were right-wing splits in Edinburgh and Glasgow as the die-hards resisted the loss of what Mr Turpie called the ”almost platonic” ideal of service to the community.

That ideal found it harder to come to terms with the increasing scope and complexity of local government as post-war administrations cumulatively increased councils’ delegated powers and expenditures.

In the regions and districts brought in by the new system set up by the Conservative Government’s reforms of 1974, certainly in the central belt and the north-east already organised on party lines by Labour, the idea of part-time council work became increasingly hard to sustain.

The Government’s continued resistance to the idea of paying councillors’ salaries owes something to nostalgia for the old high-principled days as well as to a determination not to hand out largesse to political opponents, many of whom have turned council activity into a full-time affair. One of the consequences has been a persistent difficulty in recruiting potential Tory councillors.

By 1955, as is well known, Conservative influence in Scotland reached its zenith in modern times when the party secured 50% of the vote and 35 seats. Since then the party has been punished by the vagaries of the electoral system (Labour with 42% of the votes in 1987 won 50 seats).

By the end of the sixties, other unfavourable forces were appearing. The decline in heavy industries was dissipating the old Orange vote particularly associated with the Protestant working class.

A secular age was sending the Church of Scotland into decline. James Kellas, in his book The Scottish Political System, records the association between Church membership and Conservative voting.

Catholics in Scotland, on the other hand, tend to vote Labour. This theorem, long taken as axiomatic in the West of Scotland and as an explanation as to why the SNP found it difficult to dislodge Labour in industrial Scotland, may be in danger of losing its validity.

Largely because of differences over school closures, relationships between the hierarchy and the Labour leadership of Strathclyde region are not cordial. Cynics believe that the Government’s proposals to allow schools to opt out is an attempt to untie the close bonds between Labour and Catholics.

At the same time a new professional class has arisen. Many of its members come from working-class backgrounds and feel they owe something to socialism. Many firms have been dependent on public patronage (often via local authorities). Many people work for the State, for example in the health service.

In the sixties the party’s unionism, its Scottishness even, began to come under pressure. Rather self-consciously the party tried to shed its landed-gentry image and put forward fewer candidates with bools in their moo. Edward Heath temporised with and attempted to accommodate, with the plan for a Convention, the nationalist forces that surged with Scotland’s oil, and Mr Rifkind was among those Conservatives who supported devolution in the seventies.

Deep unhappiness about devolution surfaced from vital Conservative constituencies, notably the business community. In the eighties the idea has been kicked into touch but the the ball is on the stadium roof and most people feel it must come down again into play.

The business community remains suspicious of devolution and supportive of Mrs Thatcher; indeed there is considerable admiration for her in its ranks. But the lack of loyalty to Conservatism among the wider professional class was shown at the 1987 election when constituencies which might have been expected to vote Conservative defected. This new and non-Conservative bourgeoisie has been increased by recruits from the South receptive to social democracy. Indeed, north of the Highland Line Democrats remain the dominant voice in parliamentary politics.

The Conservative constituency in Scotland, therefore, appears to have narrowed for a variety of reasons. But the party is deceiving itself with its facile dismissals of the recurrent accusation that it is an ”English party.”

This is a crude way of saying that its Scottishness is in doubt. Perhaps that perception is an emotional reaction to Mrs Thatcher herself, but it also reflects confusion about the party’s true identity.

Until Mrs Thatcher’s arrival, conservatism in Scotland, personified today still by such figures as Sir Hector Monro, stood for social cohesion and loyalty to established values.

This was no new phenomenon. The party’s roots go right back to the Covenanting wars and the battles between the forces loyal to the Stuarts and the Whiggish Presbyterians. The obligations of rank and the responsibilities of leadership, strong ideals of traditional Toryism, find their way down to us in the concept of community service.

Mrs Thatcher’s conservatism is much more akin to nineteenth-century liberalism, with its emphasis on laissez-faire economics. Adam Smith, the Liberals’ ideologue, has posthumously crossed the floor of the House.

The perception that the Tories have lost their Scottishness arises not only from the application of policies in a country which did not vote for them, or from attacks on local authorities democratically elected.

It flows not just from the dominant personality of Mrs Thatcher or the party’s refusal to contemplate a Scottish Assembly for which there is now something approaching a consensus in Scotland.

It comes, rather, from a loss of historical continuity and a failure to show respect for Scottish sentiment. Perhaps one day Scotland will turn round and thank Dr Rifkind for the dose of Thatcherite medicine. A more likely prognosis has to be that with increasing fervour this old country will hanker after some more effective means of expressing its national will.

Most Scots would wish that to be achieved within the Union, a sentiment which may perish as centralising forces wax in the UK and Europe and create a political reaction on the periphery. Scots took ill to the Stuarts’ attempt to enforce episcopalianism. It is time that our Scottish Tories rediscovered their own nineteenth-century philosophy — that within the Union the Scots were best left to organise their own affairs.

Arnold Kemp